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"Fed Up" Tories Trudge Into The General Election As Divided As Ever

Britain's Prime Minister and Conservative Party leader Rishi Sunak speaks with brewery workers (Alamy)

5 min read

Conservatives MPs remain "fed-up" and divided as to whether Rishi Sunak should have called an election on Wednesday, as the Prime Minister kicks off the formal campaign around the country.

From the backbenches to Government ministers, Tory MPs have for months been resigned to the belief that the party is likely to lose the next election. Professor John Curtice, a renowned pollster and respected psephologist, gave Labour’s chances of winning the election a 99 per cent probability earlier this year.

A YouGov poll published by The Times on Thursday found the Conservative Party trailed Labour by 25 points. If this data was replicated at the ballot box, the Conservative Party would receive fewer seats than when John Major oversaw the party's catastrophic ejection from office in 1997.

According to one Tory MP on the right of the party, the main chat in parliamentary tea rooms lately has been "how to get another job". 

Sunak has long insisted he would call an election for the second half of the year, meaning the now confirmed 4 July vote just about allows him to stick to his pledge. But many had nonetheless settled on the assumption that voters would not be expected to go to the polls until November. 

“It is still not coming across that many people can follow the logic behind it,” the same Tory MP told PoliticsHome.

One cabinet minister told PoliticsHome they understood that MPs were shocked and surprised as they thought they were on a six-month journey until the election.

But three key factors played in the Prime Minister’s thinking to go ahead with July. The first was that Chancellor Jeremy Hunt had told Sunak it was unlikely there would be another fiscal event prior to the next election. Uncertain economic data coupled with expensive economic commitments, such as compensation to the victims and those affected by the contaminated blood scandal, is likely to cost the Treasury tens of billions of pounds. 

The second is that the Prime Minister was increasingly concerned about further divisions and splits opening up in the party that potentially could have forced him into it anyway. At best it would put the party infighting that the public so detests on display for many more months. GB News reported on Wednesday that a number of Conservative MPs were working on a plot to call off the next election and replace Sunak before Parliament was dissolved on Thursday.

The third crucial factor was that, if the Tories left it too late, this would give Labour the chance to build up its financial war chest at its party conference in October. With Labour expected to win the next election, more business representation and donations were highly likely.

At local elections earlier in May, the Tory Party lost hundreds of councillors as well as West Midlands mayor Andy Street to Labour’s candidate Richard Parker which also bolstered the view that Sunak was likely to wait longer. 

One minister told PoliticsHome they were “pretty fed up” and claimed many MPs did not like surprises and sudden changes of plan.

“I like planning and strategy, not panic and scrabbling around," they said. "There are a number of reasons to argue in favour of going early, but three weeks after the local elections when we have all got our heads down for the summer is something else entirely."

The Times reported that Isaac Levido, the Australian campaigning specialist who masterminded the party’s election win in 2019, wanted to delay the election until the Autumn. But Liam Booth Smith, the Downing Street chief of staff, and James Forsyth, the political secretary, were in favour of calling the election sooner.

Many within Westminster believed Sunak would hold and call an election at the Conservative Party’s annual conference in October. This would allow the Government to legislate for key changes such as its smoking-ban bill, setting up a football regulator and reforming the rental sector.

The first 24 hours of the Conservative campaign has been privately mocked by Tory MPs. Sunak was soaked with rain as gave his Downing Street speech to call the election, while D:Ream's Things Can Only Get Better – the anthem associated with New Labour's 1997 win – blared out from the street in the background. 

“He could have used a British made Union Jack umbrella,” said one former cabinet minister.

The government will however be relieved that Nigel Farage, the former UKIP leader, will not fight the next election and has confirmed he will not stand as a candidate for Reform UK. The right wing party has been polling well in the last few months, and some MPs were concerned that if Farage re-entered the foray he could supercharge the insurgent party's momentum. 

Ann Widdecombe, former Conservative MP and minister who now campaigns for Reform, told PoliticsHome she was convinced the Tory Party “panicked” and called an early election as they were increasingly concerned of a Farage comeback.  

“If you just look at the figures, Reform have gone up from 1 per cent to 15. The Tories have gone down from 36 per cent to around early 20s. The gap was closing,” Widdecombe said.

“The longer he left the election, the closer that gap [between the Tories and Reform] would get. I think the prospect of Farage in itself, which would be worth a few per cent in its own right, did terrify [Sunak]. And they’re right to be terrified.”

Some MPs believe Sunak was fundamentally right to call the election early as there was no other good time for the party. 

A former cabinet minister said it was “the right decision” and that there was a cohort of Tory MPs who were set to lose their seats “even in the most optimistic scenario”.

“They will be thinking that they will be losing out on five months salary and having to deal with a new reality sooner. The hard truth is the Prime Minister didn’t have a good option and certainly no great option but I think he has chosen the best one,” they said.

One Tory MP, elected in 2019 in a marginal seat, said they were up for the challenge and ready to fight Labour. 

But the vast majority of MPs, who face the prospect of being kicked out of parliament in six weeks' time, remain concerned. Sunak has fewer than two months to narrow Labour's poll lead and prove his own parliamentary party wrong. 

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